Film Review – Una (2016); David Harrower brings his intense play Blackbird to the screen

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Earlier this year, I took a trip to New York to see lots of theatre. One of the plays I saw during that time was Blackbird starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in a two-hander. It was an intense production (you can read my review here) and on hearing it had been adapted by its writer David Harrower in to a film, to be screened during the London Film Festival, I was curious to see it in a different medium.

Renamed Una, the story is a chilling, uncomfortable, examination of the disturbing reality and consequences of child abuse. Una (Rooney Mara) arrives unannounced at Ray’s (Ben Mendelsohn) workplace, to his visible shock and horror. It soon becomes apparent that Una and Ray had a sexual relationship 15 years previously – when she was just 13 (it was 12 in the play and I don’t really understand why the change for the film, seeing as it is well under the age of consent). It’s a horrifying realisation for the audience and over the course of the film, we see the true consequences of such abuse; something we don’t like to think about and the way it affects that child’s life forever, as they mature and become an adult.

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Rooney Mara as Una (Photo via: Entertainment Weekly)

 

Although for the needs of a film, the story is expanded a little, it remains a piece driven by its two central characters and both actors do a tremendous job with such challenging material. Ben Mendelsohn (most recently known for Netflix’s Bloodline) is excellent at portraying Ray as a seemingly normal man. There are times when you almost forget what he has done, so good is his performance. Interestingly, he was quite different from Jeff Daniels, who played him as a much weaker and broken man. Seeing Una terrified him and he often felt weak compared to her. Mendelsohn plays him as a more confident man in my view; far more in control of his emotions. Daniels’ Ray perhaps genuinely didn’t think he was like “those other men”, but I had the sense here that Mendelsohn’s Ray knew exactly who and what he was. This made him much more disturbing.

Rooney Mara is the pivotal piece of the picture and she is astonishing as Una. It’s a role that demonstrates the calibre of actress she is when given the right material (one of the weakest bits of the wonderful film Lion for me was how wasted Mara was). She has an incredible on-screen presence that pulls you in to her world and doesn’t let you go. You see how damaged Una is; how confused she’s been for 15 years about what happened to her. There remains something childlike about her; as if part of her has been frozen in the past. There is also a tension between the two of them that chills you, as you see that as a girl she was more upset at thinking Ray had deserted her rather than what he’d done to her and her complex feelings for him made me ache for her. We rightly think of children who experience such terrible things as victims, but Una’s/Blackbird’s power is in highlighting that at the time those children may not see themselves that way.

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Ben Mendelsohn as Ray (Photo via: Entertainment Weekly)

 

One of the most powerful moments in the play was when Una recalled the last few hours she spent with Ray, after they’d ran away together to the seaside, apparently about to embark on a new life. You couldn’t see it then, but through the talent of the writing and Michelle Williams, your mind took you in to the past with Una. One of the most disturbing aspects of the film however, is the fact they can show us young Una as well as adult Una and indeed seeing her as a child with Ray is harrowing.

The film chooses to move beyond the factory setting, which allows us to see both Una and Ray interact with others; Una mainly with her mother (played by Tara Fitzgerald), who she has clearly never really forgiven for how she reacted in the aftermath of what happened, and Ray’s work colleague Scott (Riz Ahmed), someone who she could perhaps be happy with if she wasn’t quite so broken and had circumstances been different. Unlike the play, we also get to see Ray in his new life, with his wife and friends and the film leaves us with the same frightening uncertainty as the play, as to whether Una really was his only victim.

I’ve seen some people comment that they thought this was a paedophile apologist film, but it’s not that at all. It couldn’t be clearer how dreadful the actions of these predators are, while also shining a spotlight on just how such events can happen, when someone who seems to be like any other neighbour can choose to take advantage of a child in this way. It also makes us think again about those children and how they require emotional strength and support long in to adulthood.

I admit I may not have chosen to see this film had I not already watched the play, but it’s a strong, emotional and thought-provoking  piece and a very capable directorial film debut by playwright and theatre director Benedict Andrews (most recently director of Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire) and I hope is a performance that will earn Rooney Mara deserved praise. It is certainly a film no one who sees it will forget.

Una does not yet have a release date in the UK or the USA, but I’ll update this post if one is announced.

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Theatre Review – Blackbird (Broadway, New York)

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Another play I managed to have time to see during my New York theatre holiday was the Broadway premiere of David Harrower’s play. I knew very little beforehand, but was an admirer of the work of both actors.

Set in a break room of a dreary office building, Una (Michelle Williams) has arrived at the workplace of Ray (Jeff Daniels) having not seen him for 15 years. However, this is not an ordinary meeting and it very quickly becomes clear that Ray was a former neighbour and that the two of them had a sexual relationship. What makes this more shocking is that, at the time, Ray was 40 and Una was only 12 years old. After being released from prison, Ray has moved away, changed his name and started again (the offence having been committed before the sex offenders register existed). Tonight however, Una is determined to make him face her and the consequences of his actions.

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Over the course of 80 minutes, we watch as these two damaged people unleash their pent up emotions and the more they do, the more the lines blur regarding how they each view what happened and how they now feel about one another. It proves to be a thought-provoking experience for the audience.

The two actors are very good indeed. Michelle Williams, dressed in a floaty dress, designed to make her seem more childlike, plays Una’s jumble of emotions wonderfully. She is a complex character, whose childhood has understandably affected her whole life. She is like an unstable chemical element, which you expect to explode at any moment. In certain moments she speaks of how many men she’s slept with and yet in others she regresses to more childlike behavior, suggesting someone still on some emotional level trapped in the past. She wants to be in control of this meeting, stalking Ray around the room and seemingly enjoying just how scared he is of her and her unexpected reappearance in his life.

In a role he played during its original Off-Broadway run in 2007, Jeff Daniels takes his lead from her, as Ray struggles to try and explain the past from his perspective. Although I felt myself focusing on Williams’s performance, Daniels convincingly plays a man haunted by Una, who despite his larger frame at times appears small and weak in her presence. It’s not an easy role and it’s a testament to the actor that you sometimes forget that he is a criminal.

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I’ve seen some comments as to whether this was love or abuse. I think this is too simplistic a question. For me, it is perhaps more unclear for Ray and Una from their perspectives than from mine as an audience member. There is clearly a connection between the two of them and they are still drawn to each other, which seems to excite and terrify them in equal measure. However I never questioned the inappropriateness of Ray’s actions. Una was a child, not even a teenager, but a pre-pubescent 12 year-old girl.

He spends a lot of time trying to make clear that he isn’t one of those men, that he doesn’t have those urges towards children and that he didn’t set out to have sex with a child. You are never truly sure if he really believes this or if it’s what he’s been telling himself ever since to move on. This uncertainty about Ray is brought home even more by the play’s powerfully unresolved conclusion, which in one moment made me shudder.

To add to the emotional complexity, as the play continues, you realise that Una’s anger stems more from a feeling of abandonment by Ray than from what he actually did. Ultimately the tragedy for these two people is had they met later in life, things could have been very different.

The strongest section of the play is when Una is reliving their last night together and its aftermath for her. The stage lighting changes gradually growing dimmer as she delves further in to those past events. So powerful is Williams here that you feel as if you are reliving it with her. You can see it in your mind’s eye and feel jolted when brought back to the present. It was hugely effective and the most powerful part of the production.

Certain aspects didn’t work for me. I grew to find the stilted, clipped dialogue of the early part of the play frustrating. Also the throwing around of rubbish by these two people at that point in proceedings didn’t, for me, achieve anything. All the verbal and sometimes physical sparring and outpouring of emotions beforehand were much more interesting.

Blackbird is not a comfortable play to watch by any means and although it didn’t impress me as much as other productions I saw in New York, it was certainly a powerful, thought-provoking and at times disturbing experience.

Blackbird continues its run at the Belasco Theatre (111. West 44th St.) until 11th June 2016. Running-time: 80 minutes approx. (no interval). $32 rush tickets are available each morning at the box office. For more information visit the website.